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What is Chanukah?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht


Library » Holidays » Chanukah » About | Subscribe | What is RSS?


Chanukah (pronounced CHAH-noo-kah) means "dedication." It is an eight-day holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple after a period of enemy occupation.

And now for an abridged version of the story: It is 223 BCE and the Greek Seleucid Dynasty rules parts of the Middle East, including ancient Israel. King Antiochus III is good for the Jews except for his huge taxes and cultivation of Hellenist culture. He dies. Son Seleucus IV takes over, increases taxation. Hellenistic cultural invasion of Jewish society reaches epidemic proportions--monotheistic Judaism out, humanistic Hellenism in.

Seleucus gets iced in 174 BCE, brother Antiochus IV takes throne, forcefully attempts to rub out Judaism--forbids Shabbat, Kashrut, circumcision et al on pain of death. Mass persecution/execution of Jews begins around 170 BCE.

140 BCE sees riot erupt in quaint little village Modi'in: local Jews led by elder Mattityahu and sons defend daughter/sister from pre-marriage initiation, kill Antiochus' soldiers, head for the hills. News spreads, Jewish rebel army quickly forms across country and wages increasingly successful guerilla warfare for a year.

On or around December 14, 140 BCE (the 25th of Kislev, 3622) Jewish army restores regular Temple operations with limited resources, light makeshift Menorah with one-day supply of olive oil, and miracle of miracles! Oil burns for eight days until fresh fuel arrives, and the shine of spirituality melts the senselessness of secularism, then and for all time.

In 139 BCE, the Rabbis designate those eight days as an annual holiday celebrating the chanukah, or dedication, of the Temple and the miracle of the oil. For a more detailed version of the story, go to Virtual Chanukah. But if you want the full story, I would advise you to purchase The Complete Story of Chanukah, available from Kehot Publications.1  

See also When is Chanukah? and How is Chanukah celebrated?


  • 1. Sources: Talmud Shabbat 21b; The Complete Story of Chanukah.


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(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
An eight day mid-winter holiday marking: 1) The miraculous defeat of the mighty Syrian-Greek armies by the undermanned Maccabis in the year 140 BCE. 2) Upon their victory, the oil in the Menorah, sufficient fuel for one night only, burned for eight days and nights.
Laws of Kosher (Jewish dietary laws).
The ninth month on the Jewish calendar, normally corresponding to November-December. The holiday of Chanukah starts on the 25th of this month.
Candelabra. Usually a reference to the nine-branched candelabra kindled on the holiday of Chanukah.
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.